Natural and human controls on dune vegetation cover and disturbance


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    Beaches and dunes are one of the most heavily used environments on Earth, with tourism and residential uses leading to ecosystem loss and dune degradation. Many coastal dune fields also host a range of economic activities such as farming, mining, and animal grazing, which can affect their evolution. The second half of the 20th century has seen an increase of dune vegetation cover in many dunes around the world, with climatic forcing often cited as a driver for this. However, identification of the relative contributions to landscape change due to climate vs. natural and/or artificial disturbances remains unclear. This poses a problem for managers seeking to maintain some ‘desirable’ landscape characteristics, because understanding the reasons for dune field change is essential prior to implementing interventions, as is differentiating what is natural from what is not. This study proposes a systematic approach to identifying dune disturbances and isolating them from the effect of climate. The approach assumes that it is possible to measure dune disturbances by comparing observed vegetation cover with that expected due to climate. A semi-quantitative procedure is proposed to explore the existence of disturbance, its significance, and the causes for it. The procedure can also be used in reverse to explore the effect of variables driving disturbance and the likely landscape trajectory if the driver is removed. The approach is tested with a case study of the Sefton dunes in NW England, a large dune field subject to multiple interventions and degrees of human impact. The discussion focuses on the importance of disturbance location and the range of variables involved in changes to vegetation cover at this and other locations. In natural dune fields, it is recommended as best practice to managers that artificial stressors and human-led disturbances are minimized to allow coastal dune systems to evolve naturally.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)643-656
    Number of pages14
    JournalScience of the Total Environment
    Early online date2 Apr 2019
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


    • Coastal dune field evolution
    • Climate change
    • Human impact
    • Dune management


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